The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.
David Gregory who directed the excellent doc Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau is back at Fantastic Fest with his latest, a comprehensive look at the Brucesploitation phenomenon, Enter the Clones of Bruce. The film begins as expected with a brief snapshot at the life and meteoric rise of Bruce Lee and the vacuum it left when he died shortly before the release of the film that would assure his bonafides as an action icon, Enter the Dragon. Gregory smartly manages to convey how the world instantly fell in love with the charismatic martial artist on screen when he only had handful of completed action films, and 15 minutes of one unfinished left in the can at the time of his passing. Reminiscent of the Aussie film docs by Mark Hartley, Clones is a hilariously informative and unconventional deep dive into one of the most bizarre sub-genres in action that manages to grab you with its look at the men chosen to possibly be the next Bruce Lee.
Using the stages of grief as a narrative framework, the film begins to tackle this hunger, by a world grieving for the loss of the master, that had enterprising upstarts rather than looking for the next Bruce Lee. Keep in mind this was a world before home video and the internet. We are then introduced to the international cast of characters and their Bruce Lee inspired alter-egos that were an attempt to fill his shoes and make a few bucks. What could have been simply a fun poke at this bizarre trend, has each man portrayed as a real person offered a faustian bargain of becoming film stars by simply changing their name, their look and replicating the mannerisms of the deceased star they looked up to. This all transpires while we are treated to the greatest hits of all the best and most insane aspects of this sub-genre. From fighters with snakes for hands(!!), to the masterpiece of Brucesploitation epics The Dragon Lives Again that has Bruce Lee fighting alongside Popeye against James Bond, Emanuelle and COUNT DRACULA in Hell no less.
Yes this is real.
What I didn’t expect was the fact that Gregory tracked down all these men behind the likes of Bruce Li, Bruce Leung, Bruce Liang and Dragon Lee to name a few who detail what it was like at the height of this craze, the lives before and now after. While it was definitely an effort to exploit film goers, with the lure of a lost Bruce Lee performance, the fact that they would put Bruce’s name on posters for these films didn’t help either. But what we soon discover is this exploitation wasn’t simply relegated to those theater goers either, as we find out these men would be shooting sometimes two to three films simultaneously for next to nothing, only to discover THAT footage had also been cannibalized into a fourth and fifth film as well they hadn’t been paid for. There is a bitter sweetness recounted about this experience that the men are quick to recognize, that this fame wouldn’t have been possible without Lee’s legacy and the impact it had on their lives.
The film also takes a look at those whose stars rose thanks to their screen time in Enter The Dragon, my personal favorite being Angela Mao Ying who played Lee’s sister in the film and had left the industry 30 years ago. Gregory tracked her down and she discussed her time on set with Lee along with such genre icons as Eric Tsang and Sammo Hung who also appear and share their perspectives on the impact Lee had on the Chinese film industry as a whole. This allows the camera to push back a bit into the film industry in Hong Kong and China at the time and how Bruce reinvigorated the entire industry with a world that now wanted Kung-fu films thanks to Enter the Dragon. We get to see some of these massive Chinese studio compounds in present day that were used for the likes of Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest now in ruins. The only person missing oddly from this doc was Bolo Yeung, who is very much out there in the convention circuit. While he didn’t face Lee in Enter the Dragon, he was a regular participant in Brucesploitation films giving fans a what if, the two had squared off.
Of course the film ends with the final stage of grief, acceptance, as the world is introduced to the next Chinese action star who was an uncredited henchman in Dragon, Jackie Chan. While we know how the story goes from there, it’s getting there that this doc does a downright impressive job at deconstructing thanks to the perspectives on those that participated in a insane sub-genre that could never happen today. This is partially thanks to time and the obvious love put into this all encompassing doc that gives the ultimate cliff notes on the nearly hundred films churned out during this period. As a fan of Lee, this topic has always been a bit of a blind spot because I didn’t know where to start. But l left this film not only with a clear grasp of the players, but their stories and a list of films I needed to check out.